Clinic Stories

Mount Kilimanjaro (Intro)

Mount Kilimanjaro, along the Kenyan border of Tanzania is not only the highest point in Africa, “the roof of Africa”, it is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. It is a popular climbing destination because it is the only continental peak that does not require any technical climbing. So long as one can tolerate the conditions of 19,341 feet elevation, it can be reached through walking. Because Kili lies just below the equator, it can be climbed year round. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but it seems that about 12,000 people a year set out for Uhuru (Freedom) Peak and about 45% make it to the top. My plan was to be among the 45%.

I left on Saturday night, January 6, 2018 expecting to spend the next two nights on overnight flights. A blizzard followed by a water main break had left JFK International Terminal as a homeless shelter. When it took two hours to get from airport parking to the terminal – detours for snow clearing, the airport entrance was closed, an accident with fire and ambulance, heavy traffic and an accident by our driver – they would not allow me to board. As it turned out the flight was delayed 3 ½ hours so I easily could have made it but they listed it as on time. I slept in the airport waiting for a morning flight that did not take off, then was booked in the evening for the same flights as the night before.

This now meant three consecutive nights in transit and going directly from the airport to the mountain to start hiking. To add some spice to the trip my luggage never left New York. Through a combination of borrowing, renting, scrounging from lost and found and mostly doing without, I started the climb less than 2 ½ hours after landing and arrived at the first campsite 40 minutes behind my group. This was a kosher climb, organized by an Israeli with kosher food and no hiking on Shabbos. After the second day we shared meals with an orthodox father and son from Cleveland. Their tour operator was of much higher quality than ours with a mess tent for two people twice the size of the one we had for seven.

The second day was an 8-9 hour climb under good conditions. As the sun was setting people started shouting and for the first time Kili was clearly visible. Snow covered and rising three vertical miles it fulfilled my criteria for an adventure – nothing is worth doing unless at some point you ask yourself “What was I thinking?” It did not seem possible that in 2 ½ days of climbing we would stand on top. No description suffices for looking at a destination three miles skyward, intimidating and humbling being woefully inadequate.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is glamping – glamor camping. Cooks prepare meals, porters carry and set up the tents, food, water, even the toilets. Our group of seven hikers was supposed to have a staff of 25, but it expanded to 40 because they rely mainly on tips (pay for a porter is about $8.50 per day) and many people like to line up for foreign money. The story is told of an economist who came to Africa and was shown a tunnel project being dug by shovels. When he questioned why they did not use power equipment, he was told they were creating jobs. “Well, if you want to create jobs”, he replied, “then you should use spoons.” Tanzania uses spoons with all the inefficiencies that come with it.

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